The Eye of the Storm: Shayne Laverdière, Xavier Dolan's photographer
Behind the scenes of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan with the Montrealer's permanent all-access pass
Photo by Shayne Laverdière
“Can you hear me? I’m on the road.” Shayne Laverdière, a man constantly in transit, called earlier this year from a Jeep en route to his home city of Montreal, fresh off of a photo shoot in Toronto. A fashion photographer by trade, Laverdière stumbled upon a gig so singular that TIFF tracked down the Montreal native to understand how it all came about. Laverdière — simultaneously intensely proud and, in equal measure, self-effacing — is Xavier Dolan’s photographer, both on set and off. Since Laurence Anyways (2012), Laverdière has worked with Dolan as a stills photographer on all of his films and side projects — (Adele actually stopped the entire production of “Hello,” personally calling iTunes, so that the single’s original artwork could be removed and replaced by Laverdière’s own photo.) — all while also being Dolan’s fashion photographer of choice (and on top of his day job).
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan will have its World Premiere during the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 at the Winter Garden Theatre, followed by a second screening on September 11. Looking for tickets? Keep an eye on TIFF.net/Available, and remember: there's always the Rush line.
TIFF: How did you meet Xavier? Did you already know him before you started working together? How did this partnership come to be?
Laverdière: Do you have 10 days? (Laughs) No, I didn't know him. I had just returned from India when I met him, in 2009. My 25th birthday was spent over there, and I'd been in Paris for six months before going to India. I came back to Montreal and the classic thing happened: you're trying to work more, you're trying to become a photographer, you're trying to get to a certain level, and, as a local, nothing happened. Then you leave and when you come back, there's this buzz around you because you've been somewhere else.
I had no agenda to meet Xavier. I didn't know who he was. But I photographed one of his actors from his circle — Niels Schneider (J'ai tué ma mère, Les Amours imaginaires) — and at the end of that day he said to me, "You should meet my friend." That’s how we met.
The first photos I did with him he was like 19 years old. We did a bunch of photoshoots together, and he'd go do one with someone else, and then he came back to me, kind of grumbling, "They really didn't capture me," or "I wish I’d worked with you." In 2010, he asked me to be the stills photographer on his film Laurence Anyways, and I said yes. I did that for a little while, and after that film we didn't see each other for like six months. Then I got a phone call from him: "I've been doing these photos, and I hate them all the time. I've decided I'm just going to work with you, 'cause I like what we do." From that point on he started requesting me — and it was then that his popularity skyrocketed. He would refuse to do magazines without me. He'd tell Vogue, "I’m shooting with Shayne, otherwise I'm not shooting."
You mentioned that there's a bit of an inner circle — and with all your photography with Xavier, there's this sense of genuine relationships between cast and crew. What is it like to be a part of this group?
It's a really unique experience because I don’t know how often it happens in cinema — where you have the same actors. A lot of his actors are in multiple films that he's directed, and even down to his technicians — he personally hand-picks the best boy in lighting — and sticks with them, and he really chooses everybody that he wants to work with. Because the people that he works with, in one way or another, are his family. He surrounds himself with people he loves — on- and off-set.
We're all along for the ride. You're sacrificing a lot in your personal life for the film, but, at the same time, you know you're contributing to something amazing. It makes it easier to hop on board, even though you know that when you get onto one of his films it's going to be a challenge.
Do you think that this consistency and loyalty is what lends itself to the intimacy in your photography?
Yeah, because unlike any other set photographer, I'm there 100% of the time, which is completely uncommon for a stills photographer. Stills photographers are never there for more than, let’s say, 12 days for a 45-day shoot. They'll be there for the most important scenes, but never will a stills photographer be there the whole time. But I'm there. I'm part of the furniture — I don’t know if you can use that expression in English.
(Laughs) You're so a part of something that you completely blend in. I’m like a fly on the wall, and I'm such an intrinsic part of the crew that people know that I'm there, but they don't really notice me. I've just been there for such a long time now.
There are often small elements of humour in the body language of the actors in your photo shoots, like they're mugging to the camera for an old friend.
I think that's there because one of my talents as a photographer is getting really intimate with people.
They all seem very comfortable with you.
I genuinely want to fall in love with everybody that I photograph because, otherwise, the photos aren't that good. That's how I approach photography in general: getting to know the person. Inevitably, wanting to know these people, we get close. Sometimes we don't, but generally we do. I've kept in contact with almost everybody who has been on Xavier's set. People are comfortable with me, so they're not shy or embarrassed to show their true selves to the fly on the wall.
You could say that, as that fly on the wall, you're bearing witness to — arguably — one of the best filmmakers of our generation, and you're seeing every single beat of his career.
I wouldn't disagree with that. He's one of — if not the — best filmmaker of our generation, and I think he's only scratched the surface of what he can do. That's why I always enthusiastically take part in the project. If it was just some other director doing a film that nobody's really going to remember in five years, obviously I wouldn't be there. I'm witnessing something very special, and it's fascinating. Sometimes it can be — it's hard to say this — sometimes it can be boring because if I'm there or if I'm not there, it doesn't affect the final outcome, directly speaking. If we logically and pragmatically look at what my contribution to the film is, if I wasn't there, the film would still get made.
I kind of disagree with you. Your photos play such a large part in the marketing of Xavier's films; they're either the first thing you see, like that first shot of Marion Cotillard for It's Only the End of the World, or the shot of Antoine-Olivier Pilon from Mommy. Your photography essentially represents the entirety of the film. It's what people associate with the film, and how it's sold. How do you feel about that, that when someone thinks of Mommy they think of Antoine staring at them?
It's really interesting that you say that. I feel like I'm always rubbing my face in the mud, so sometimes my eyes are full of mud and I have a hard time seeing past that, if that can be an analogy that I can use. It's hard for me to actually take a step back and say, “Holy shit, look at what I'm doing.” I have a weird relationship with my photography. I'm hard on myself, and I think I have a hard time owning my work, because I'm also so busy; I don't have much time to step back and look at my own work and say, “I did that.” You're right, though. My photos do have a purpose that affects Xavier's films and his career. You're right.
Back to the question you had, it's amazing to be a part of this, for my work to be a part of this. I know that my position is a special one that is quite rare and unique — and my photos are a result of a relationship that I've built with Xavier. I think that's why they look the way they do. I wish people could be in my head sometimes. I've actually had this exact discussion with André Turpin [Dolan's regular cinematographer], who has become, through working with him extensively over the past few years, one of my best friends. We've talked about this because André is also always on set, and he's constantly, constantly working. His brain is going a million miles an hour. He's dealing with every department. He's going really fast. Me, on the other hand — it's an extremely slow process. I'm always waiting, which is so different from all the rest of my career. I have a lot of time to mull things over.
While you’re waiting, do you take advantage of the opportunity to learn from DPs like André?
Totally. And there's always, like, these — it'll go in waves. I'm on set, and maybe I'm getting distracted — honestly, it's like day four of the same actors, same costumes, same technicians, same sets — and sometimes I'll drift off in my mind. But then I kick myself in the butt and go, "Yo, Shayne. Time to challenge yourself. Go figure out how to shoot this in a different light." So yes, there's a lot to learn on set. I learn about storytelling. I learn about writing and directing. I learn from André. I’m always looking and paying attention. Talking with someone like you is always good, too, because it allows me to realize what I'm in.
It's a little time to breathe and think it through.
Yeah. To think about it.
About André: Why do you think Xavier has gravitated to work with him almost exclusively at this point? What is it about him as a DP?
Their energies meld really well together. André is an extremely sensitive individual — on- and off- set. He has absolutely no ego. He is the kindest person you'll meet. He and Xavier are like yin and yang. Xavier is like a turbulent storm, a hurricane, a tornado of energy and creativity — it's almost cacophonous. André is his counterweight. He's very calm, composed, and so he takes away some of that stress that Xavier has, and he's able to put some of it on his shoulders.
When you do still photography on set, do you work with the DP to intentionally catch a particular aesthetic for the film?
Yeah, I think it's standard practice. A still photographer shoots digital and then works with the DP to get a colourization, if you will — a transfer that works in the same vein as the film will look. But with Xavier and André, I shoot on film. André shoots on film. There are no digital cameras on set. So I'm really always talking with André about what he's doing and how he's lighting. I really have to base myself on my knowledge of light, and knowing how and when to underexpose, overexpose. Being on set with Xavier has been huge practice for me. I've been unbelievably fortunate to practice film photography day in, day out with basically an unlimited supply of film — which is totally unheard of in this day and age. It's more expensive, it's more complicated, and it's not simple. I'm sure the producers would love for me to be shooting digital! (Laughs)
(Laughs) I’m sure, but it’s not the same.
No, it's not! And Xavier wouldn't have it. In the past I tried, when I was starting to shoot with him. I'd shoot digitally. Then I'd show him, and he was able to point it out right away. He'd say, "Get that digital out of my face!"
Let's talk John F. Donovan and the photos that you released last year. How do you choose which stills to share with the media?
It's a collaboration. With every other aspect of the film that Xavier chooses — down to the last teacup that you can't really see, out of focus in the back of the scene — he's picked it out personally. The same goes for shooting the behind-the-scenes photos. Maybe what people don't know is that I've got a bank of probably, like, 100,000 photos that nobody's ever seen. The 20 photos that came out were Xavier and I sitting down together and picking them out, one by one. But he has final say because it’s his story and he knows what he wants to say.
He may see something in a photo that I find a bit less inspiring, less extraordinary, but it tells the story the way he wants to tell it. At this point, after seven or eight years of working with him, it's kind of like he reads my mind and I read his. I know what he likes, I know how to guide him, and, generally, our tastes seem to be pretty singular. We like the same things and I know now more than before what to propose to him, because I know what he likes.
Do you think the vibe was different on the set, given that there were all these English-speaking Hollywood stars? Did you feel the stakes were higher now that you were going outside of Quebec?
It was definitely a different league we were working with. We were working with really big-deal Hollywood actors, and everybody was super cool. Everybody was polite, and we didn't have any drama, per se, on set. It was different, though, because the other films — like, his first five films — were done with Quebec actors, so in those films there was more of a freedom to play. His notoriety is known in Quebec. I think that Xavier sees John F. Donovan as a really important stepping stone toward the rest of his career.